Performance Network offers a deeply powerful 'Piano Lesson'
photo by Jude Walton, courtesy of Performance Network
When the past is full of pain, do you hold onto it and allow its lessons to shape your life, or do you try to cut yourself free of it completely and start anew?
That’s the central question that drives August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Piano Lesson,” now being staged at Performance Network, and the two responses are embodied in a feuding brother and sister.
In 1936, widowed Berniece (Lisa Lauren Smith) is living in Pittsburgh with her uncle, Doaker (James Cowans), and 11 year old daughter, Maretha (Alexandria Simone Bauer), when her brother Boy Willie (Brian Marable) and his friend Lymon (Sean Rodriguez) suddenly arrive from the South in a truck packed with watermelons.
Boy Willie has a grand plan to sell the melons, as well as the family heirloom piano in Berniece’s house, in order to buy land that the siblings’ ancestors had previously worked on as slaves. But Berniece won’t consider parting with the piano, which is decorated with hand carved depictions of these same ancestors.
The Network’s “Piano Lesson” follows on the heels of its 2009 production of Wilson’s “Fences,” and both were directed by Tim Rhoze. And while the latter (in my opinion) fell a little short of its potential, “Piano Lesson” manages to hit all the right notes and sing in full voice.
Interestingly, an unusual number of cast changes happened in the months leading up to “Lesson”’s production, but you’d never guess that, given the terrific ensemble work happening on the Network’s stage.
Among the most notable performances on opening night were Marable, who seems wholly at home in Boy Willie’s skin; Lynch Travis, who plays Avery, an aspiring preacher and elevator attendant who patiently but persistently courts (uninterested) Berniece; and Smith, who skillfully conveys the broad range of Berniece’s emotions while also making her occasionally funny (e.g., her repeated attempts in one scene to show Avery the door).
Plus, one of the most captivating, time-suspending theater moments you’ll likely experience this year involves Marable, Nelson Jones (as Doaker’s brother, Wining Boy), and Rodriguez sitting around a kitchen table, performing a work song together, with Cowans eventually joining in. Trust me. The rendition by itself may be worth the price of admission to “Lesson.”
But there’s so much more on offer, of course, thanks to Rhoze, his talented cast, and his design team. Monika Essen provides yet another gorgeous set, expertly outfitted with Charles Sutherland’s props. The era details help bring the story vividly to life, as is also true with Essen’s costumes. The production’s palette consists largely of browns, grays, and faint, burnt oranges, suggesting a washed out time that’s long past - so when Boy Willie’s new ladyfriend arrives in Berniece’s house in a red dress, for example, there’s an immediate sense of her not belonging.
Finally, Andrew Hungerford’s lighting and sound design effectively achieve the play's supernatural elements and mark tonal shifts in the story.
Despite the play’s nearly three hour run time, “Lesson” practically flies. Rhoze and his actors tap into Wilson’s distinctive rhythms with precision and care, so that the show’s dense conversations flow with an inviting, musical ease, and we’re fully engaged in every exchange, every story told. Yes, “Lesson”’s final moment feels strangely abrupt, as it always does; but all that precedes it is a rare pleasure.